ATTRACTING BIRDS TO YOUR GARDEN BY A GARDENERColin Campbell-Preston
Attracting Birds to your garden by a gardener.
There is a lot of information flying around on the internet on ways of attracting birds to your garden by feeding birds and installing bird boxes. This can be done in two ways:
- The ‘direct route’ which is to supply birds a variety of foods such as seeds, nuts and fat balls and to provide water, either with a pond or birdbath.
- The indirect route which is which is to provide man made bird boxes for birds to nest in
The best and most natural way, however, is to make adaptations to attract birds by improving their natural habitat – this is done by growing plants which will suply food through seeds and berries for birds to eat or plants that attract insects which are then snatched up by the birds.
This blog concentrates on the most natural way and will help you learn to adapt your garden to attract more birds without buying next boxes and fat balls.
At the centre of this is to appreciate that most inland birds in the U.K are ‘woodland birds’ and this is the habitat they prefer to live in or nearby. So, we should be thinking of either creating woodland plantings or make our plantings mimic a woodland setting.
The best trees to attract birds are those that provide both shelter and then food through flowers and fruit. If you love plants this may sometimes stretch your tolerance so be prepared to share your blossoms and fruit with our feathered friends.
Cherry, pear and plum flowers (especially Golden Gage) usually in bud, attract bullfinches who may be particularly hungry in spring when their supply of wild flower seeds have diminished. You can compromise by offering the bullfinches a separate supply of sunflower seeds nearby the burgeoning blossom tree. Flower petals, although offering a meal, are not nearly as energy rich as a ‘fat’ mature seed.
Trees which produce fruit mostly as berries are those that will attract birds. If you have space, then plant a selection of trees where the berries mature over different times. Cherry trees which produce berries (Prunus avium) are one of the earliest suppliers in the summer, then Rowan, (Sorbus aucuparia) in the Autumn and finish off with fruiting crab apples (Malus sargentii , Malus ‘Golden Hornet’) which fruits during Autumn/Winter. Crab apples vary greatly in the time they offer their berries up to birds and this will also vary from year to year depending on the weather conditions. For example, in some years Malus ‘Golden Hornet’ can hold their berries well into the winter and then suddenly these are all gobbled up, especially by black birds.
The relationship between tree and bird is often a happy one where the bird, through the acids in their digestive system, breaks down the hard casing of the seed hidden away within the fruit, this breaks the dormancy and stimulates the seed to germinate. This is seen in the U.K with wild cherry, Prunus avium and bird cherry trees, Prunus padus.
There are trees that produce seeds which provide food for birds. An example of this is our native Ash tree which produces seed favoured by Bullfinches in the Winter. Another example of native trees producing seeds for birds is the pine tree and, if you are in the highlands of Scotland, then you might be lucky and attract the really beautiful Scottish crossbill or if you’re very lucky the wild capercaillie to your pine tree!
As an aside here, we should mention that rare though it is, there is genus of trees, Pisonia that kills small birds. It does this by having large seeds with small hooks along with a devilishly sticky surface that makes the seeds attach themselves to birds thus weighing them down so that they can’t fly or even get trapped in the tree. The lure of food becomes a fatal attraction. However, for us in the U.K we don’t need to worry too much about this tree as it is a tropical tree found in the Seychelles and Puerto Rico.
Back to our gardens where we can look at the shrubs which attract birds, these in the main are those that offer a meal of succulent berries such as Cotoneasters, the guilder rose – Viburnum opulus, roses with hips – Rosa moyesii, raspberries, vines, Cornus, Pyracantha cultivars and female hollies. In warmer parts of the U.K the holly from eastern North America, Ilex verticillata, is a particularly good berried shrub, growing to around 1.5 metres high with lovely bright orange-red berries. Plant this in a sunny position and keep it well watered. It does like acid soil so on alkaline soils you may have to dose it up with acidic fertilisers such as Maxicrop Sequestered Iron.
Returning to our theme of woodland birds, any shrub in a garden will help towards attracting birds by the simple expedient of providing shelter for them. However, the best shrubs for this are low growing dense evergreens which allow our smaller feathered friends to scoot low just above the ground and then hide in the protective layer of foliage. This is especially important in a larger garden where if you have groups of evergreens around the garden you will get birds ‘lane hopping’ between these evergreen shelters. Shrubs such as Prunus ‘Otto Luyken’, Lonicera pileata and low growing Junipers are good providers of undergrowth for hiding birds from beady eyed predators. Of course you can plant larger evergreens which will provide shelter and food, a tough and easy shrub to grow for this is a plant named after a bird – Photinia ‘Red Robin’, where if it does produce berries, blackbirds will feast on. But those of us living in colder parts of the U.K should beware of using Photinia, as the only thing that seems to kill this tough plant is prolonged cold frost below – 10C.
In open ground herbaceous and annual plants that produce easily accessible and nutritious seeds will attract birds, these are seen in plants that have flatter shaped flowers such as Asters and Sunflowers and then large seed heads such as Teasel. Almost any flowering plant will attract insects to your garden which in turn may provide food for birds, Sedums, Ascelpias and perennial Cornflowers – Centaurea montana are particularly good at attracting insects. One of the easiest plants to grow, as a cultivated annual, is Verbena bonariensis which, if put in a sunny position, will produce lots of lovely purple insect inciting flowers over a long period.
Adorning your outside walls and fences will also attract birds to your garden. Vines, Pryacantha, Ivy and Virginia creeper – Parthenocissus quinquefolia, are particularly good at providing both foliage for protection and food via their fruits.
So at a time of year when we start to see spring beckon and a planting season before us, let’s do some gardening for the birds! I say this even as I am gritting teeth looking at a patch of devoured Crocus flowers. This year I will again add plants to my garden to encourage ‘them pesky beautiful creatures’ into my patch.